My principal goal as a parent and father is to raise children to become moral and productive adults, capable of taking care of themselves in the great wide world. This seems to have once been a simpler task given that more and more young adults are coming out of college saddled with debt and either returning home or at best, treading water while they look for the opportunity that permits them to flourish as full-fledged adults. But that goes to the productive side of the equation; where my wife and I have worked assiduously is to help develop their moral side. Apart from the usual perceived affliction of church attendance and religious education, we’ve pushed service, requiring volunteer service even before it rears its head in middle and high school. When each of the kids has reached 13 years of age, we’ve required that they find an outlet for volunteer service and each has responded in kind and now Youngest has his own gig, thoroughly different from his older siblings and very much in keeping with his developing Linus-like sensibility: I love mankind, it’s people that I can’t stand. As we’ve talked through the years, I’ve gone back to one of the multiple communication taglines that reiterates the point – it’s not about you, kid – and each has heard it repeatedly. Youngest has probably heard it more than either of the other two because he’s sometimes been present when said to his siblings but hasn’t had the experience and maturity to comprehend the full meaning.
But even when the younger kids aren’t saying anything, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t thinking about it. If it’s not about me, then who is it about? was the question that came off of Youngest’s lips as we sat in the car several weeks ago. There was nothing sarcastic about the question, asked as we drove to get yet another pair of shoes for a growing young teen. He’d been puzzling over it because he’s heard me say it so often through the years. Children are by nature ego-centric and it’s only as they grow and their perspective widens that not only the awareness of existence, but also the welfare of the others, begins to develop. Self moves first to immediate and then extended family, then outwards to friends and hopefully beyond that to others who aren’t necessarily even acquaintances. But being a moral person means not only an awareness of others but also a willingness to work in ways that benefits others, even if they aren’t friends and family, and that is a perspective that frequently has to be taught both by conversation and example. But the effort to raise a moral person is frequently opposed by the tone and tenor of modern American culture.
That we live in a narcissistic society is a well-documented given. For the record, narcissism is defined as inordinate fascination with oneself; self-love; vanity and highly covered and somewhat controversial books have documented that psychological test scores measuring narcissistic tendencies have increased over the past three decades. A deliberate societal push for self-esteem – sometimes without the backing of any actual accomplishment – joins with a stunning array of personal electronic devices that permit the user to record their image and voice again and again and again in the search for perceived cool perfection; with an ability to immediately delete what’s not wanted and an immense memory storage and the focus inward is hard to resist. This rise in narcissism is an inherent threat to morality since it’s predicated upon self while morality is predicated – at least partially – upon caring for the welfare of others. The narcissist’s view is inwards and superficial while that of the moral person is outwards and – hopefully – deeper.
So the effort as the kids age is to get them to shift that perspective outwards and away from themselves. It means considerable conversation – occasionally a monologue when they’re sullen – and a deliberate effort to engage them in the outside world, helping them find a meaningful way to work on the behalf of others. It means a willingness to establish limits on the electronics, whether refusing to allow certain devices or setting limits on usage time and media content. It means a willingness on your own part to model the kind of behavior that you wish them to exhibit. It isn’t a one-off instance but instead a lengthy and constant process that can be both rewarding as well as tiring, sometimes throwing another iron into the fire of a family schedule. It is about teaching them that there is more beyond simply themselves and their own needs and wants and that real progress can come when a few are willing to step up and lead; when others see the effort, they will often in turn be drawn out from within and join the effort on behalf of others. There are all manner of student organizations, student honor societies and school districts that promote voluntary service hours amongst youth, but the primary focus has to be from within the family itself because that’s where the child is going to get the greatest example and emphasis.